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Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique

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Alexander Technique
220 x 150 mm.
Mouritz Bibliography
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A compilation of 40 scientific and humanistic papers on the Technique.
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A compilation of 40 scientific and humanistic papers on the Technique by F. P. Jones (1905-1975) who trained with Alexander. Most have been published only in scientific journals and some have not previously been published. Some of the papers are ‘Problems of Tension and Fatigue,’ ‘Kinesthetic Perception and the Postural Reflexes,’ ‘Posture as a Function of Time,’ ‘Startle as a Paradigm of Malposture,’ ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ and ‘Head Balance as Postural Mechanism in Man.’ Each paper is introduced by T. Dimon, the introduction contains many biographical details and the foreword is by Alexander Murray.


This book is a collection of 40 short papers by a classicist turned scientist who had been a pupil of both Alexander brothers, A.R. and F.M. The set is described as 'the most comprehensive scientific body of research on the Alexander Technique to date'. In assessing this claim it is necessary to have regard to the significance of the word 'scientific'. In my own claim to have pursued a scientific career, I have taken it that the contribution of the scientist to society is to formulate explanatory descriptions of the state of affairs in such a form that they have predictive value. In this interpretation, most of the great collectors and classifiers of the last century have to be regarded , not as scientists as is often the case, but as 'natural historians'. This is not in any way to denigrate the role or status of natural history, but merely to characterise an important difference in function, as between the natural historian and the scientist, the two roles not being mutually exclusive. In each case precise mensuration plays an important part, raising the crucial matter of the choice of what to measure. For the naturalist, mensuration reveals the range of natural variation and contributes to decisions as to classification. For the scientist, on the other hand , mensuration forms part of the process of challenging preliminary versions of a prediction and helps to sort out useful predictions from fantasy.

Frank Pierce Jones applies mensuration to various movements of humans with or without the application of the Alexander Technique. This is a laudable endeavour in that it is not easy to decide which measures will reveal the details that one wishes to investigate. The recording medium favoured by Jones is multiple image photography with markers on various parts of the subject's body in the form of small lamps or of reflective tape illuminated by flashes. Clear distinctions are revealed in the details of how such everyday tasks such as sitting down in a chair or rising from sitting to standing are performed by men or women.

There are clear differences to be seen attributable to the signals conveyed to the subject by the Alexander teacher's hands. The figures in this book intended to illustrate these results are, unfortunately, rather poorly printed. Either the lettering referred to in the text is buried in the general overexposure of the photographs or, in the case of line diagrams , the essential lettering is much too small to be read.

I was astonished to see that, in a work attributed to a respected classical scholar, a wellknown quotation from Ovid is repeated in full, three times within a very few pages, each time with a different misprint. Medea makes an appearance as 'Media' and Gerald Manley Hopkins, is misprinted as 'Hapkins'.

The earlier papers in this collection are dominated by discussions of the role played in the subject's behaviour by Sherringtonian reflexes and the postural studies of Magnus and de Kleyn. This is an attempt to explain how the changes in behaviour attributable to the Alexander lessons might be brought about. Much of this material is of historical interest only. The relation between reflexes and voluntary behaviour is seriously misunderstood and the postural scheme put forward by Magnus and relied on here is now known to be invalid.

Sherrington had been struck by the fact that certain responses , such as the withdrawal reflexes , can be elicited in animals whose central nervous system (hereafter CNS) had been very severely damaged, as by separation of the brain from the spinal cord. His detailed studies revealed that, although some part of the CNS was involved in generating the responses in which he was interested, the amount of CNS actually required could, in some cases, be restricted to only a few segments of spinal cord. He proposed a separate category, to be named 'reflexes', for responses of this special type. Although some part of the CNS was found to be necessary, it was clear that, in such severely reduced preparations, there could be no question of the involvement of consciousness or of the will.

Sherrington set out the principle that a 'reflex' involved several e lements arranged in what he called a 'reflex arc'. The starting point is a sense organ or sensory system that distinguishes an environmental change that is appropriate (the 'adequate stimulus situation') to the generation of a specific reflex response. Messages are passed from the peripheral sensor, along 'sensory nerves', to a 'reflex centre' inside the CNS, from which other messages are reflected back, along 'motor nerves', to the periphery, where they initiate activity in effector structures. These may be muscles or glands. An essential feature of the scheme is the need for a message transfer process connecting the relevant sensory and motor nerve-fibres. Sherrington coined the word 'synapse' for the site of such transfers, necessarily within the CNS. There are thus several features that must be present before a particular response is properly categorised as 'reflex'. The usefulness of the concept is seriously undermined if this principle is ignored. A consequence of the involvement of the neuronal arc is that there is an irreducible delay between stimulus and response occas ioned by the finite speed of nerve impulses and the time occupied by the complex processes of transmission from cell to cell.

It has been known for some time that normal balancing behaviour is dependent on the integrity of certain parts of the central nervous system, namely those associated with the labyrinth in the inner ear. Magnus attempted to isolate the influence of the Labyrinth by tilting the whole of the decerebrate animal, head and trunk together. The results, as he described them, would not have a stabilising function, since similar effects were seen in all four limbs in response to a tilt of the head in any direction, His work has been repeated, with different results, each of the four limbs extending or flexing according to which way the skull is tilted. The combined effect, as now described , is stabilising. If the trunk is held in a particular attitude while the head is tilted , as is the most usual situation, effects from the neck come into play. The 'neck reflexes', as described by de Kleyn , have been confirmed, the effect of the interaction between effects due to the tilt of labyrinth and effects due to changes in the neck is to produce stabilisation of the trunk rather than of the head. It has been suggested that the result Magnus described may have been attributab le to accidental damage to the cerebellum during the decerebration procedure which he used.

The responses in the limbs attributable to the combined influences from the neck and from the labyrinth, consequent on the motion or position of the skull , if mediated entirely by reflexes, would inevitably be affected by reflex delays. An even faster mechanism for response generation is required to produce the very effective and smooth stabilisation seen in man and other animals.

Such a mechanism is to be found in the recently discovered 'anticipatory pre-emptive actions'. The idea behind this concept is that since our sense organs provide information , not only about the structure of our environment but also about movement, such information may be used to construct expectations and predictions about what is going to happen in the immediate future. Appropriate patterns of motor activity can be formulated to reduce the risk of an anticipated but undesirable condition. One's sensory system may thus detect an imminence of overbalancing and one's voluntary motor response can be the prompt production of a fall-breaking movement of some sort, which, if quick enough, may suffice to eliminate the risk of overbalancing, at any rate for the moment. Incidents of this kind are common, so that the detai ls and timing of the responses can be polished by repeated adjustment, a fine-tuning not available for innate reflexes. The learned reactions soon become habitual as we cease to pay attention to the signals that elicit them.

It would not be fair to criticise Pierce Jones in the light of susequent research. He could be expected only to make the best use he could of the ideas current in his day, and to rely on a scheme of reflexes for the maintenance of balance. It is a pity, however, that he does not seem to have progressed from simple observations to genuine inquiry. He deploys some ingenuity in exploring various techniques for recording movements but what are we to do with his results? For example, in his interesting contribution to observations on the startle reaction, his electromyograph records do not indicate the moment of the startle stimulus. We cannot therefore distinguish whether the recorded activity is related directly to the observed head movement, as Pierce Jones suggests, or alternatively whether it is a stretch retlex response following a forward falling of the head when all antigravity activity is suddenly interrupted in response to the stimulus. As a basis for arguing for the latter view is the observation that, in the horse, one hears the hooves striking the ground after the startle, as the anti-gravity thrusts in the legs are resumed after the sudden drop of the centre of gravity consequent on their earlier inhibition.

He even lets us down over what it is that the teacher of the Alexander Technique actually does. When his text leads one to expect some detail of this fascinating topic, he retreats into what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the treatment and we are left to guess at the contribution provided by the teacher. For example, he says 'the difficulty of describing Alexander's work lies in the fact that mastery of the technique brings with it a change in sensory appreciation and makes possible continuously new experiences in the use of the self. A new experience, however, can never be conveyed to another by words alone'. (Are we to take this passage as referring to the teacher or to his pupil?) Again, a little further on, 'the control of the self which Alexander teaches is based upon a true understanding of how the human organism functions as a whole'. Stated this baldly and isolated from its context, this strikes me as a preposterously unrealistic claim. It is natural that the book should reflect the atmosphere of thinking at the time that the individual papers we rewritten. Its publication is thus valuable as an historical record, and perhaps one should not ask for more.


I . Professor J. McVicar Hunt (book jacket quotation)
2. 'Aldous Huxley and F. M. Alexander' pp. 315- 327.
3. p. 315
4. p. 324
5. p. 6

2001 © T. D. M. Roberts. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2007-2014. All rights reserved.